Galveston: The Mother of All U.S. Natural Disasters

BY Jason Kane  September 28, 2011 at 5:50 PM EDT


A split view of Galveston’s Broadway Street – in September 1900 and today. Photo courtesy of Galveston Historical Foundation.

September is an unlucky time of year for Galveston, Texas.

It was in September that this barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico attempted to tango with two of the biggest storms in hurricane history: Ike in 2008, Carla in 1961. In different ways, both threatened to blow down and wash away much of what has sustained this place for nearly 200 years — the history and culture, even the tired grit.

But a far deadlier storm set its sights on Galveston 111 years ago this month. It came charging up the Gulf of Mexico without a name on Sept. 8, 1900, and slammed into a city full of bright prospects: a boom town of 37,000 known as the “Wall Street of the Southwest,” a major deepwater port and the first town in Texas to have electricity and telephone service. But when the “Storm of 1900″ hit Galveston, the city was also just 8.7 feet above sea level.

By nightfall, a storm surge 15 feet high rose from the Gulf, knocking more than 3,600 homes from their foundations before crushing them to pieces with waves that lapped back and forth over the island. By the time it was over, between 6,000 and 8,000 people were dead. Some estimate more.

“In reality, there was no island, just the ocean with houses standing out of the waves which rolled between them,” Isaac Cline, chief meteorologist of the U.S. Weather Service station on the island, wrote in his memoirs.

To this day, the storm of 1900 stands as the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the United States.

By dawn, a third of the city had been reduced to shards of timber mingled with dead bodies, animals and rotting fish. The death toll was too much for traditional burial methods and throwing the bodies into the Gulf also proved disastrous: the beach was soon filled with corpses washed back ashore with the tide. So for months, thousands of the city’s men, women and children were simply piled and burned in the streets.

In some of the earliest known video footage of a natural disaster, an assistant to Thomas Edison captured the scene in a series of clips now housed at the Library of Congress.

Among the buildings still standing in that footage was the Bishop’s Palace — a mansion built by a railroad tycoon in 1892. Its windows were shattered by the hurricane’s 140 mph winds and water rose to its front porch, but the house stood like a fortress as everything around it crumbled.

When the NewsHour Health Unit traveled to Galveston this month to learn more about the city’s efforts to rebuild healthier after Hurricane Ike, Betty Ann Bowser stopped by the Bishop’s Palace to talk with Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, about the hurricane that will forever be known here as the “Great Storm.”


But if Galveston’s overnight destruction set a bar for disaster, it also made history for its recovery. To brace against future storms, a 17-foot seawall was constructed along the beach. More than 2,100 buildings were hoisted onto jacks, sand was pumped in from the bay and the elevation of the city near the seawall was raised 16 feet.

The carnage also inspired one of the first mass relief efforts, with recovery donations pouring in from around the nation. The Red Cross — just 19 years old at the time — came to Galveston in force. A 78-year-old Clara Barton led the efforts herself, writing later that many of her volunteers “grew pale and ill,” and that she, “who had resisted the effect of so many climates, needed the help of a steadying hand as I walked to the waiting Pullman on the track, courteously tendered free of charge to take us away.”

Now, 111 years later, Galveston is struggling to find its way clear of the destruction of Ike, which damaged or destroyed 75 percent of the island’s buildings in 2008. Many parts of the city remain empty.

On the anniversary of the 1900 storm, Galveston County Daily News Editor Heber Taylor wrote that “it’s easy, with the third anniversary of Hurricane Ike approaching, to get discouraged. There’s still so much to be done.”

That’s why remembering the 1900 storm is important, he wrote – it offers some perspective, and also some hope. While thousands died in the “Great Flood of 1900,” only 23 were killed in Galveston County during Ike. And while recovery continues three years after the city’s most recent disaster, rebuilding after the 1900 storm took decades.

”It was a mess, and people doubtlessly were discouraged often in the years it took to get that job done,” Taylor wrote.

“After a tragedy, feeling discouraged is a natural thing. It doesn’t have to be a permanent thing. It just takes some time and some toughness to recover. The survivors of the 1900 storm proved that.”